Taking a look in the light of today’s understandings of women and girls, whose lives were constrained in the 19th century by orthodox religious attitudes and accepted rigid social norms, and how the advent of modern Spiritualism, flourishing in these bad conditions, gave women from all classes of society a chance to rise above it, gave the disenfranchised female a voice both in private and public outside of the performing arts when even the word ‘theatrical’ could be a slur and ‘actress’ could also mean ‘prostitute’ and in particular one illustrious and famous in her own time and ours, Spiritualist Pioneer Ms Emma Hardinge Britten
Revered for her pioneering work for Spiritualism during the century of its inception, Emma Harding Britten was as highly complex a character as her multi-talented abilities would have been expected to make her. The woman who is commonly held to be, ‘the mother of Spiritualism’ in the UK, is a much more enigmatic Spiritualist icon than you might think…
Born in London in 1823 and Christened Emma Floyd, she enjoyed a gifted if somewhat sombre minded childhood of music study until the age of 11 – when she was suddenly forced by the death of her beloved father to seek employment as a music teacher.
Always aware of another dream-like dimension of life, inhabited by other people of a more ethereal quality and not always pleasant of aspect, Emma felt led by her father in spirit to pursue a career in music and then theatre; so her mid-teens found her travelling in the UK and abroad making her living for herself and her widowed mother as an actor, a singer with an operatically trained voice, and dancer. It was at this point in her life that she chose the stage name ‘Harding’. It was some years later that she began to tack on the ‘e’…
Interestingly although Emma herself owned up to using her mother’s scrap books and her own letters home, that had been saved by her mother as a source, for the information given in her autobiography – that was only published after her death – the years of travel and theatrical experiences of her teenage years while she was thus making her living are fairly sketchy, and perhaps needfully embellished in part, omitted in other…
One might say that given the substantial contribution that she made to the Spiritualist movement for the rest of her life following that turbulent start, she was wise to concentrate on the minutiae of that important aspect of her life story, rather than her other, of economic necessity, more worldly activities! Nevertheless there were initiatives that owed more to the material world than the spiritual, even after Emma’s embarkation on to the Spiritualist platform. For instance her healing through electrical means, that would appear to be similar in effort to fairground remedies on sale generally, and her listing after her marriage to the eminent Doctor William Britten in the Boston newspaper under the classified heading of ‘Entertainment’ giving an illustrated lecture on the physiology of the human body (with models) was one talk among very many on similar pseudo-medical and physiological subjects.
Emma does credit her husband with providing for her public appearances and all other related expenses materially, although in that autobiography she devotes 10 paragraphs to her beloved parrot Joey, a gift from her husband, and for him peremptory mention here and there, with but one paragraph written to record Dr Britten’s passing from this life.
Dr Britten would have provided the extremely expensive wherewithall for his wife’s publishing ventures, Spiritualist periodicals as well as many books. When his will was published it read only £100 plus change – a poor sum for an eminent physician… Her autobiography was published after her passing in 1899 by Emma’s sister Margaret.
Interestingly Emma also composed and published music from an early age – as Ernest Reinhold.
Because of her mundane talents as well as her psychic powers, Emma moved in social circles through those attributes, associating herself with the literati, such as Charles Dickens and other writers who themselves were interested in spirit matters, persons similarly intrigued and involved occupied in business and professional occupations and , of course, the aristocracy.
It was the young, beautiful, acting, singing and dancing Emma who sailed to America with her mother, ever her chaperone – although fairly reliant on her daughter’s earnings – and so into Spiritualist history. Nay, legend! Her talent for writing took her to attending a séance in New York for a newspaper, ostensibly to produce a sceptical write-up. Instead, Emma found herself genuinely interested – although being of an avowedly devout Christian faith, according to her own reports – she at first balked…
As well as becoming involved in the Christian Spiritualist movement, Emma enjoyed a strong friendship with the ‘Rochester Rappers’ the soubriquet given the Fox sisters of Hydesville, Rochester New York State, who first responded to the spirit rappings of murdered salesman Charles B Rosner on March 31st 1848. By establishing his intelligent existence after his untimely passing by using an alphabetic communication system they evolved, and utilised by Mr Rosner, the sisters and their mother then ushered in a new understanding of life after life; their neighbours who gathered at their cottage to witness this event also set up listening circles in their own homes for communication, the practice spread through publicity to other areas, and states; and thus gave birth to modern Spiritualism.
The phenomena manifesting at the Fox sisters’ home meetings after they had removed to the city of New York, totally fascinated Emma. In her autobiography she gives many accounts of her early psychic experiences where table turning and rocking in response to questions took place – and said much later in her life journey in regard to her own considerable psychic abilities in communicating with those on the other side of life – that the one gift she lacked and craved was receiving rapping, which includes table work.
Moving through all the many groupings related to Spiritualism brought Emma into close proximity to those we may still call ‘Occultists’ as she did herself. For some years Emma was embroiled with the Theosophists and Madam Blavatsky among others. This moved her away from her original Christian belief system, and eventually, two years after the death of William Britten, she published a virulently anti church/established religion book, called the ‘Faith, Fact and Fraud of Religious History’. Three years later on the 22nd of October 1899 Emma passed over to the Higher Life herself.
She is now an operator of table turning, rocking and knocking (rappings) herself. For verification see the Cathy Gibb demonstration on Youtube, or archived reports.
Emma lived many different kinds of life in her one. She remarked this herself, unsurprisingly, and she would have not wanted her words, other than those of her guiding spirits, coloured as they would have been by her own sundry and unique life experiences, to have been forever quoted as holy writ and set in stone. Certainly she would have been pleased for her scholarly output to have evinced debate and even reasoned argument among Spiritualists.
A film star/celebrity of her day, she obviously was as protective of her private life as any in our present era; more so given Queen Victoria ascended the throne when Emma was a 14 year old in the music and theatre business, and was still there when she passed away.
As Emma stated: “Spiritualism is Divine, but Spiritualists are human!”